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By Joe Bendel. If the peasants won’t take to their pitchforks, the Chusul Clan will do it for them. They are sort of like Robin Hood and his men, but they aren’t very merry. The Chusul outlaws definitely believe in stealing from the rich. That would be Jo Yoon, a Naju lord’s sociopathic illegitimate son. It is the have-not’s versus the man who has everything except a proper name in Yoon Jong-bin’s smash hit Kundo: Age of the Rampant, which opens this Friday in New York.

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It was sort of the Chusuls’ fault that the death of Lord Jo Won-suk’s son opened up a void to be filled by his new presumptive heir, Jo Yoon. Still, at the time, it was a highly satisfying mission for Dae-ho, the Chusul captain. Indirectly, it also brings Dolmuchi into the picture. The lowly clever-wielding butcher is hired by Jo Yoon to murder his half-brother’s pregnant widow. However, Dolmuchi has an outbreak of conscience at the last moment.

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Slightly disappointed, Jo Yoon has the poor butcher’s family murdered, but Dolmuchi is saved at the last moment by his future Chusul comrades. Despite the wise spiritual counsel of Ddaeng-choo, “the Vicious Monk,” Dolmuchi is consumed with a desire for revenge. However, Jo Yoon’s almost superhuman martial arts were nearly the death of him the last time they faced off. Frankly, the Naju usurper might be too powerful for Dolmuchi’s adopted clan, but when he really starts to squeeze the peasantry, Dae-ho resolves to act.

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The obvious class warfare themes drive Kundo like the runaway bus in Speed, but it never loses sight of the action. In fact, there are numerous spaghetti western hat-tips, including a big noisy one to the original Django, which is awesome. There is also the Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai/Seven Warriors dynamic of the rag-tag Chusul action team coming together, including the hulking Chun-bo, Lee Tae-ki, a former aristocratic turned outlaw, and Ma-hyang, the strictly-business archer they both carry a torch for.

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It seems like the creepiest villains in Korean cinema are often distinctly androgynous—and Jo Yoon is no exception. Freshly discharged from his mandatory military service, Gang Dong-won’s performance has the grace and menace of a psychotic ballet dancer. He is flamboyantly cruel, but screenwriter Jeon Cheol-hong takes pains to establish the linkage to his miserable childhood.

From "Kundo: Age of the Rampant."

Indeed, Gang chews the scenery quite effectively as the clammy Jo Yoon. Conversely, Ha Jung-woo practically blows smoke out his ears as the massively intense Dolmuchi. Lee Sung-min and Yoon Ji-hye are both steely cool as Dae-ho and Ma-hyang, respectively, while former MMA trainer Ma Dong-seok (a.k.a. Don Lee) is reliably energizing as the Friar Tuck-ish Chun-bo. However, veteran character actor Lee Kyoung-young (practically unrecognizable without his glasses) nearly steals the show as the hardcore but deeply compassionate priest. Unfortunately, viewers who blink might miss Korean indie star Kim Kkobbi fleetingly appearing as Jo Yoon’s fugitive half-sister-in-law.

Kundo literally tells us serfs: “United you are people, divided you are thieves.” It then proceeds to kill a bunch of extras. Frankly, the rhetoric might sound more DPRK than ROK, but Jo Yoon’s tyranny just as easily validates Lord Acton as it does Leon Trotsky. More importantly, the action sequences are pretty spectacular. Dolmuchi even fights like a butcher, which is quite cinematic. Recommended for those who enjoy epic, morally black-and-white, two hour-plus epic historical conflagrations, Kundo: Age of the Rampant opens this Friday (8/29) in New York at the AMC Empire.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on August 26th, 2014 at 10:51am.

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By Joe Bendel. Australia and Singapore enjoy close diplomatic and economic ties. There is a free trade agreement between the two countries and Singapore provided assistance to Australia’s Afghanistan deployment. It is a special relationship forged in WWII by soldiers like the two protagonists of Aaron Wilson’s intimately experiential Canopy, which opens this Friday in New York.

For a pilot like “Jim,” being shot down over the dense jungles of Singapore is a double-edged sword. The thick vegetation provides natural cover, but it is an unforgiving and disorienting environment. It makes it difficult to distinguish friend from foe, which becomes an issue when he encounters “Seng.” Somehow, he conveys to Jim he is a Singaporean-Chinese soldier trapped behind enemy lines. An alliance is quickly forged, but few words are exchanged. Even if they were not stealthily evading the Japanese patrols, they could not understand each other anyway.

With its near complete lack of dialogue, Nic Buchanan & Rodney Lowe’s stunning sound design, and Stefan Duscio’s ominously beautiful cinematography, Canopy is likely to generate comparisons to Terrence Malick. It is a richly crafted film, but it is also a taut viewing experience that packs a real emotional wallop. With incredible subtlety, Wilson implies whoever survives the long dark night will honor the memory of their fallen nocturnal comrade for the rest of his life. Clearly, the length of time is not important in Canopy. Rather it is the intensity that matters.

Frankly, it is quite a complement to contend Canopy’s eighty-four minute run time (including credits) actually feels short, given its quiet wordlessness and the measured deliberateness with which Wilson submerges viewers in the murky setting. Yet, just as it is for Jim and Seng, Canopy is over before you know it.

From "Canopy."

Given Wilson’s approach, Canopy necessarily entails a distinct acting challenge for his two co-leads, but they rise to the occasion quite impressively. For Khan Chittenden, looking like a younger Matt Damon is probably both a curse and a blessing, but such cosmetic matters quickly melt away in Wilson’s jungle. As Jim, he expresses the film’s spirit of solidarity in a way that is genuinely moving. Likewise, the Taiwanese Mo Tzu-yi is silently eloquent and utterly believable as the wounded but resourceful Seng.

Co-productions are all the rage right now, but unlike Hollywood courting China, audiences can feel good about what this Australia-Singapore joint venture represents. Canopy violates nearly every war movie convention, yet it better represents the realities of combat than most of its forerunners. Highly recommended (for disciplined audiences), Canopy opens this Friday (8/29) in New York at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on August 25th, 2014 at 10:04pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Perhaps no nation’s history during World War II is as torturously complex as the Hungarian experience. Although Regent Miklós Horthy largely refused to abet National Socialism’s Final Solution, his resistance was tragically reversed by a full scale occupation and the Arrow Cross coup d’état. In war-torn 1944, twin thirteen year old brothers will learn the worst lessons possible from Germans, Soviets, and their fellow Hungarian countrymen alike in János Szász’s Oscar nominated The Notebook, which opens this Friday in New York.

The nameless twins had lived sheltered lives, but the war’s grim turn changes everything. Fearing for their safety in the city, their mother deposits them with the grandmother they have never known. She is not pleased to meet them. Conspicuously estranged from her daughter, the old woman feels no emotional bond to the two boys. Reluctantly accepting their presence on her farm, she works them like animals for meager rations. When they complain, she beats them before drinking herself into a stupor.

The boys receive similar treatment from the villagers, who openly refer to the old woman as a witch. As a survival strategy, the twins banish all memory of their parents. To harden their bodies and deaden their souls, they institute a training regimen of physical abuse and voluntary starvation. Their only friend is “Harelip,” a somewhat older girl on a neighboring farm, who tutors them in criminal techniques. Yet, they still document their daily lives in the notebook, in accordance with the father’s instructions.

Based on Agota Kristof’s source novel, The Notebook is sort of the fictional anti-thesis of Anne Frank’s Diary. While the brothers document the horrors of war from a young person’s perspective, there is nothing life-affirming or empathic to glean from their journal entries. Instead, it is a harrowing account of their efforts to become inhuman in order to survive an inhumane situation. Yet, the brothers do not evolve into true sociopaths. Rather, their remnants of decency consistently manifest themselves in problematically violent ways.

Ironically, the brothers’ only protector is the local ranking German officer, who displays suggestively pedophilic tendencies. Ensconced in their grandmother’s former home, he appreciates their singular training sessions. Not so surprisingly, when the Soviets arrive, they act more like rapacious conquerors than liberators. Yet, the worst abuses of Hungarians are arguably committed by other Hungarians.

Since the brothers largely react with such stoic indifference to each new outrage, it is difficult to pass judgment on the young leads, András and László Gyémánt, except to commend their poker faces. In contrast, Piroska Molnár is an absolute dread terror as their Grandmother Dearest, but her monster is not without pathos. As the officer, Ulrich Thomsen is the model of Teutonic severity, whose black leather neck-brace adds creepy Fifty Shades overtones to his appearance.

At times, Szász cranks up the privations and tribulations to almost excessively lurid levels, but the film’s black soul consistently pulls it back into a stark naturalism. Innocence is not merely killed in Notebook it is incinerated and its ashes are dispersed into nothingness. Yet, irony still asserts itself in uncomfortable ways. Recommended with respect rather than affection for those who appreciate uncompromising morality tales, The Notebook opens this Friday (8/29) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on August 25th, 2014 at 10:03pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Rio gets top billing, but it will be Brasília most viewers will remember from this classic Jean-Paul Belmondo escapade. One has to wonder what unreconstructed Marxist architect Oscar Niemeyer thought of his utopian capitol city being portrayed as the stomping ground of a wealthy oligarch, but it sure looks great on-screen. Viewers’ will get a North by Northwest perspective on his monumental buildings in Philippe de Broca’s freshly restored, Oscar-nominated That Man from Rio, which opens this Friday at Film Forum, in honor of its fiftieth anniversary.

Adrien Dufourquet is not really from Rio. He hails from a French working class province. Dufourquet planned to spend his week’s leave from the army with his high maintenance kind of-sort of fiancée, Agnès Villermosa, but as soon as he arrives in Paris, she is abducted. Clearly, this is the work of the same gang that heisted a rare Amazonian statuette from the Musée de L’Homme and also kidnapped the curator, Professor Norbert Catalan, an old friend of Villermosa’s late father.

Of course, the Parisian cops are worse than useless, but Dufourquet is a tougher cat to shake. In the more innocent early 1960s (before the proliferation of PLO hijackings and September 11th), Dufourquet is able to bluff his way onboard the transatlantic flight taking Villermosa and her abductors to Rio, but nobody will listen to him once they arrive. Even though he is essentially a fugitive himself, Dufourquet continues to pursue his fiancée, with the help of several lucky turns and Sir Winston, a shoeshine boy from the favela.

It turns out there are three “Maltec” statues that might hold the key to an even greater treasure. Catalan acquired the Musée’s on a trip with Villermosa’s father and their backer, De Castro, a Bond villain-looking financier (played by Thunderball’s Adolfo Celi), who seems to own the entire city of Brasília. (Frankly, he turns out to be a more interesting character than Niemeyer might have preferred.)

One can maybe see seeds of the future French spy spoof franchise OSS 117 in Rio, but Dufourquet is far more resourceful and resilient than Jean Dujardin’s broadly comedic alter ego. His sequences shimmying around the ledges of the Brasília construction sites also bring to mind the Hitchcock classic, whereas the peaceful scenes of respite with the poor but hospitable favela residents suggest the inspiration of Marcel Camus’ international smash hit Black Orpheus. As possible influences go, those two 1959 films are pretty good ones.

From "That Man from Rio."

With Rio, Belmondo was well into the process of transitioning from nouvelle vague icon to true superstar. To that end, he does not simply rely on his on-screen charm, giving a surprisingly physical performance as Dufourquet, both in terms of the action and slapsticky comedy. He is not afraid to look slightly ridiculous or get a little muddy for the sake of our entertainment. He also has okay chemistry with the somewhat icy Françoise Dorléac, Catherine Deneuve’s sister, who would tragically die in a car accident a little more than three years after the release of Rio.

De Broca keeps the energy level cranked up and capitalizes on the incredible Brazilian locations. There is quite a bit to see in the film, beyond the Dufourquet’s madcap romp. Good, breezy fun, That Man from Rio is recommended for fans of Belmondo and modernist architecture when Cohen Media Group’s 2K restoration opens this Friday (8/22) at New York’s Film Forum.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on August 19th, 2014 at 1:57pm.

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By Joe Bendel. K2 is a challenge to summit, but as recent films have documented, getting back down is even more treacherous. However, merely reaching the mountain’s base requires a determined effort from climbers, before they ever set their first piton. Viewers will get a full perspective on the 8,000 meter mountaineering experience in Dave Ohlson’s K2: Siren of the Himalayas, which opens this Friday in New York.

In 1909, the Duke of Abruzzi led an expedition to K2. Although they did not ultimately summit the second highest peak on Earth, their experiences were invaluable for future attempts, much as the Italian nobleman hoped. One hundred years later, alpinist Fabrizio Zangrilli (of Boulder, Colorado) led his intrepid party to K2. Of course, they were fully aware of the Duke’s historic campaign, but the tragic events of the previous year preoccupied their thoughts considerably more.

In a sense, K2 is an independent sequel to Nick Ryan’s The Summit, which reconstructed the murky events that led to the deaths of eleven climbers in August, 2008. Zangrilli knew some of them. It is a small world in his line of work. Yet, he attacked K2 just the same, along with Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, the future National Geographic Explorer of the Year, who was then still working on her goal to become the first woman to scale all fourteen 8,000 meters without artificial oxygen.

Ohlson captured some dramatic visuals, but arguably the most mind-blowing shots in the film are not of K2, but the ridiculously unsafe mountain highways Zangrilli’s group had to traverse just to reach Concordia, the gateway to K2 and three other 8,000 meters. Getting there is a trek in itself, with Pakistan’s regional instabilities adding additional danger.

From "K2: Siren of the Himalayas."

Periodically, Ohlson intersperses footage of Zangrilli, Kaltenbrunner, and company with Vittorio Sella’s incredible photographs of the Abruzzi expedition. It gives viewers a good sense of the mountaineering tradition. More importantly, Ohlson uses Zangrilli’s example to redefine a successful 8,000 meter attempt. Clearly, Zangrilli is a great sportsman, but he had yet to summit K2. However, he had foregone perfect opportunities to carry down an ailing colleague. Instead, a successful K2 team leader brings his entire party safely off the mountain. After all, several climbers summitted during the fateful 2008 incident.

Evidently, we are witnessing a golden age of mountaineering documentaries. K2 follows hard on the heels of The Summit and Leanne Pooley’s Beyond the Edge, all of which are quite good, but in different ways. K2’s strengths are the wider contexts it provides, as well as some insight into the bonding that happens between fellow alpinists. Mountain climbing does not look like much fun in The Summit, but we come to understand why Zangrilli and his colleagues do it after watching Ohlson’s footage and interview segments. Recommended with equal enthusiasm for sporting audiences, K2 Siren of the Himalayas opens this Friday (8/22) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on August 19th, 2014 at 1:57pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Even in death, Chinese citizens remain victims of the Cultural Revolution. Since those dark days, burial has been illegal in the PRC, banned due to its religious connotations. As a result, entire generations have been consigned to an eternal fate as disquiet ghosts, at least according to traditional beliefs. The tragic connection between intrusive government funerary policy and a young migrant worker will be revealed in Fabianny Deschamps experimental hybrid New Territories, which screens during the 2014 Montreal World Film Festival.

Hong Kong’s New Territories represent the Promised Land for Li Yu. It is there she is to meet her fiancée, after the human traffickers smuggle them across the border. However, her fate will somehow become entangled with Eve, a French sales executive pitching alkaline hydrolysis to the Chinese authorities as a carbon neutral alternative to cremation. She had traveled to Li’s home province, because of its high rate of compliance with the government’s cremation mandate. Understandably, she chose to seal the deal in Hong Kong, where she can celebrate in style once the business is done.

The audience does not see much of Li, for reasons that will eventually be revealed. However, she is omnipresent as the film’s narrator. Eschewing conventional dialogue and narrative forms, Territories is somewhat akin to João Pedro Rodrigues & João Rui Guerra da Mata’s The Last Time I Saw Macao, except the execution is far superior. In all honesty, this might be the most emotionally resonant pseudo-experimental film you will see in a month of non-narrative Sundays.

Of course, there is very definitely a story underpinning Territories, which even takes on genre dimensions. Though rarely seen, Yilin Yang’s voiceovers as Li are absolutely devastating. Eve Bitoun deliberately portrays her namesake as something of a cipher, but her descent into spiritual oblivion is quite compelling (while her Fifty Shades scene is unnecessarily off-putting). Deschamps also gives viewers a unique perspective on time-honored practices, such as the burning of spirit money.

From "New Territories."

It is difficult to identify the right audience for New Territories, because it demands receptiveness to avant-garde forms, yet is still deeply rooted in the social and historical iniquities of Communist China. Although it is largely set in HK’s financial district and takes its name from the peninsular region, the guts of the film concern realties on the Mainland. Cinematographer Tomasso Fiorilli perfectly lenses HK, in all its alluring menace. It is a very thoughtful, artful film, highly recommended for the adventurous (and sufficiently prepared), when it screens this Friday (8/22), Saturday (8/23), and Sunday (8/24) as part of this year’s MWFF.

LFM GRADE: A

Posted on August 19th, 2014 at 1:56pm.

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